One of the things television does best it does least often - the one-on-one interview. OK, so it's "talking heads," a program genre that has bad rep in a medium that mistakenly believes every second has to be as frantic as MTV. The plain truth is that a one-on-one interview, especially when the interviewer is smart and capable, can impart more information about a human being, an idea, a concept - or be just plain involving - than any other TV program.
A perfect example is "Upon Reflection," done at the University of Washington and aired at 12:30 p.m. Sunday on KCTS-TV and Wednesday nights on Cablearn.
"Upon Reflection" was begun as a kind of recreational project by Al Page. Although teaching in the U.W. School of Business, he had a yen for TV, in which he also had background, as well as a skill in interviewing. Page did "Upon Reflection" for several years and it was seen only on cable until KCTS-TV realized it was worth airing.
When Page left Seattle two years ago to accept a position at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., it looked as if "Upon Reflection" might languish until good luck, in the person of Marcia Alvar, came along to rescue the program. Alvar has just completed her second season as host/interviewer of "Upon Reflection" and, upon reflection, the program may be even be better than ever.
To KUOW Radio listeners, Alvar is no stranger - she was program director and did on-air interviews there for several years. "I was doing about 16 a week on KUOW," Alvar recalled recently, " so doing one a week for `Reflection' seems almost like a luxury - but, of course, they're longer than the ones we did on radio."
Alvar grew up in Minnesota, toyed with the idea of becoming an actor but instead studied communications at the University of Minnesota. Next stop: Alaska. "I was going with a boy from New York and he was intrigued by the idea of Alaska - so we went to Juneau." The boyfriend split but Alvar stayed on for several years to work in communications, setting up TV coverage of the state legislature by satellite to Alaska's outlying communities, working with both radio and TV.
"Meanwhile, I met a guy who was from Vermont - he didn't want to come to Alaska and I didn't want to go to Vermont. Neither of us had been to Seattle - so we decided to come here. Do you know how scary it is to send all of your worldly possessions off to `Seattle/General Delivery?' "
But Alvar soon had a job at KUOW and the guy from Vermont, now her husband, has a career in computer software. Since leaving KUOW, Alvar has been working as a consultant in radio, especially American Public Radio, helping set up programming, coordinating program ideas with potential funding - and doing "Upon Reflection."
Producer Andy Helman aims for a mix of guests, taking advantage of "visiting firemen" such as Dr. C. Everett Koop and Robert MacNeil - and experts in various disciplines, many teaching or lecturing at the U.W., such as Richard Restak, M.D., (whose book on "The Brain Has a Mind of Its Own" provides fascinating material for a discussion, the subject of this Sunday's program). These men and women who may be less well known but are every bit as fascinating in the hands of a stimulating interviewer like Alvar.
(The show goes into repeats for the summer, which means if you missed some of the best shows this past season, you have a second chance. Especially good are the interviews with Koop (May 31), Jonathan Kozol (June 21), Calvin Trillin (July 12), illustrator/author Art Spiegelman (Aug. 2), poet/novelist David Wagoner (Aug. 9), MacNeil (Aug. 23) and Robert Dahlstrom (Aug. 30).
Alvar finds both the famous and the less-famous equally challenging. "Seattle is often the end of a book tour so you may get a guest who is `interviewed-out.' It's a challenge to find questions they haven't already been asked. I remember one author who just wanted to get out of the studio and go to Sea-Tac - he kept his hand on his suitcase throughout the show. But it's also true that those people are pros, familiar with TV and the interview format. Professors who don't do much TV may have to be urged to open up and relax."
Almost without exception, Alvar's guests comment upon how well prepared she is. "If it's an author, I try to read the book he or she is plugging - but I often prefer to also read something they've written earlier. It tells me where they've been and how they've progressed. And it surprises them a bit, keeps them from just giving rote answers."
Alvar generally writes down questions she plans to ask but tries to memorize them. "There's no way I can keep referring to notes and keep contact with the guest," she said. "But I've also learned that while being prepared is important, it's just as important - maybe even more so - to listen, and to pick up on what the guest has said. It can often lead into whole new areas of discussion that may be more interesting and informative than just talking about what they're doing right now."
It's that willingness to listen to the guest and explore what they've said that intrigues both the guest and the viewers - and it's also what keeps "Upon Reflection" one of the reasons to keep your TV set plugged in.